How the PR industry has changed in the past 25 years

Ragan Hall of Fame honoree Philip A. Nardone looks back on his career, key personal decisions, the struggle of operating in a pandemic, and his favorite myth to bust.

From starting out working the reception desk to cultivating his own global communications agency, Philip A. Nardone has charted an extraordinary career arc.

With offices spanning from California to the U.K., and with a more than 150 devoted employees, Nardone was a clear choice as a Ragan/PR Daily Hall of Fame honoree in 2020.

He is president and CEO of PAN Communications, an integrated marketing and PR firm with nearly $25 million in revenue, stemming from six straight years of double-digit revenue growth.

Nardone has keyed on an ability to work closely with his executives, to think strategically and to lead PAN through regional, national and global expansion: The company has offices in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Orlando and London.

Beyond the bottom line, PAN’s community efforts and corporate philanthropy program, PANcares, have donated $70,000 in pro bono PR services to PAN’s partner organizations—including Covenant House and the MA Coalition for the Homeless—since November 2017.

Despite his busy schedule, Nardone took time to answer questions about his company’s quarter-century of success and offer his insights about PR in an ever-shifting world.

Phillip Nardone

Philip Nardone

How does it feel to be a Hall of Famer?

Nardone: I feel very humbled and appreciative. It’s especially rewarding that my leadership style and values (honest, transparent and collaborative) were recognized in such a highly visible award, as it’s something that I’ve had pride in since the day we opened PAN’s doors 25 years ago. This recognition doesn’t come without my incredible team of 150-plus at PAN, who help me every day become a better CEO.

Your company is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.  Please talk a bit about your beginnings.

Nardone: I started as a receptionist at a PR firm, and while I always knew I wanted to start my own agency, I never imagined it would grow to the scale we’ve accomplished 25 years later as a mid-sized independent firm. We launched in 1995 in my living room where we signed our first client, Pri-Med. Less than a year later we moved into an office space in Andover, Massachusetts. From then on, we focused on launching a website, bringing in new clients and expanding our workforce. Eventually in 2011, we made the move to Boston to become more centrally located for our clients and employees; it was the best decision I ever made.

The biggest change that we’ve made since 1995 is our service offerings. We started out strictly as a PR agency offering media relations to our clients, because that’s all anyone really needed back then. But after the dot.com boom and the digital transformation our industry has experienced in the past two decades, we’ve expanded into more of an integrated marketing approach. The partnerships we have with brands look much different now than they did at PAN’s inception.

So, has your mission changed along the way? Why or why not—and, if so, how?

Nardone: Our mission hasn’t changed; we’ve only scaled it to accommodate our culture and roots internationally across five offices. PAN has always been driven by the belief that great people can do great things, which is why we focus on people (employees and customers) and culture first. We set out to bring their stories to life.

The brands that we work with have technologies and innovations that are impacting our world in a big way, and we have a responsibility to elevate their stories above the industry noise. Our original vision was to be one of the most trusted agencies for that undertaking, and I believe we have achieved that.

In the last quarter-century, PAN Communications has expanded to a bicoastal operation and across the Atlantic to the U.K.  How do you conduct business differently in the various markets you serve, and what are the unifying aspects? 

Nardone: While every office has different priorities based on the needs of that market, our approach to IM&PR is consistent from Boston, to San Francisco, to London and everywhere in between. The London office, for example, has the advantage of being in one of the most exciting tech centers right now. So, we put a strong emphasis on operations for the growing field of what we call X-Tech there. However, our cross-office teams and amazing leaders allow us to deliver top-notch service and a feeling of “#OnePAN” no matter the location. We may be in five different locations, but we operate as a “virtual hallway” supported by all of the technology needed to see and speak with an employee in any office.

Another unifying factor is our ability to work with brands of all shapes and sizes to reach new stages of growth. In each market, we stay focused in two vertical industries: technology and health care.  We pride ourselves in our revenue-driven PR and marketing programs that are really making an impact across every brand we work with.

You were nominated for the Hall of Fame before COVID-19 took hold and turned the world upside-down. How have you and your employees adapted your approach to recruiting clients and conducting business?

Nardone: While there have been initial setbacks, we’re fortunate to be in the tech and health care sectors. Businesses and consumers alike are starting to see the value of these industries as their everyday life changes and we adjust to the “new norm.” Digital health, security and artificial intelligence are three areas of expertise for us that have seen tremendous growth, funding support and a continued need for integrated marketing services. This has kept our new business pipeline consistent over the past few months.

During this pandemic, there was an energy that ignited for all of us to go above and beyond for our clients. We’re supporting demand gen efforts in new ways by taking our event-service offering virtual, and really putting an emphasis behind revenue-based marketing and our data-driven approach. We also immediately packaged up some of our crisis communications offerings to support that obvious need, as brand messaging and positioning and internal/external comms have never been in such high demand. In times like these, we’ve learned that it’s not necessarily about creating new services, but rather about being able to pivot and adjust current offerings to better adapt and align with your clients’ needs.

What (else) during this COVID-19 time stands out as your greatest challenge—and most gratifying solution?

Nardone: As a CEO during the pandemic, an obvious challenge has been cutting costs in the midst of client terminations and pauses. Deciding what to sacrifice, so we can still meet client demands and remain financially responsible. A really big fear for my employees was addressing the elephant in the room: job security. My solution was to hold on to what’s ingrained in our values—the people-first mindset. There was a lot of decision-making on where we were going to cut back so that we could preserve our employees’ jobs first and foremost, and we made it happen. Cutting back on certain expenses like our 25th Anniversary campaign, sponsorships and client/inter-office travel are small steps that make a big difference in keeping our PAN family together. It helps to have an incredible finance team to get you through it, too.

The other challenge, of course, is maintaining an engaged workforce over the past few months. It’s easy to fall victim to a poor work/life balance when your work and life have become “one” in a remote setting. Our solution to this has been hosting all-staff meetings every three weeks, daily CEO emails from me (I had no idea I’d still be doing this 12 weeks later) and providing employees with an anonymous email forum to voice questions or concerns direct to me (A.M.A.—Ask Me Anything). You wouldn’t believe how engaged that has kept our team across all five offices. We’ve also implemented weekly virtual workouts and cocktail hours that make the distance between us feel that much shorter. Today, we launched a Be Kind to Your Mind Mental Heath Resource Center, filled with great tips and resources for our team should anyone be struggling with mental health during this difficult time.

What common communications myth would you like to dispel? 

Nardone: “PR lacks the ability to generate significant revenue.”

The myth that drove me to start our firm over two decades ago. There are several misconceptions about PR and marketing, one being that you can’t tie them to the bottom line. It’s a myth believed by people who have yet to spend the time or resources to find the right program and activities that will drive demand and fuel business growth.

It’s not a “one size fits all” model, and that’s why at PAN we pride ourselves in insight-driven partnerships that showcase the value of our efforts and help us continuously improve. We’re in the business of helping our clients tell impactful stories that make a difference in their communities, and now more than ever, those stories will be a lifeline for brands looking to thrive in a post-COVID world.

What was the biggest struggle you faced (personally or professionally) and how did you deal with it?

Nardone: Each of us face struggles in life, and it’s impossible to leave them at the door. No matter how hard you try, when you are a CEO the lines between work/life are blurred. Your struggles cannot be dealt with “after hours,” because your business is your life.

When I came out as a gay man 20 years ago, I not only worried about my family’s reaction; I was also worried about how it might impact my growing agency. Would clients think I was dishonest?  Would clients not want to work with an openly gay man, or an agency run by an openly gay man? Would prospects find out and accept me/my firm? Most importantly, would my employees still hold me in high regard and respect me?

I chose the honest, direct approach.  I refused to hide who I was, but I also worked hard to not be defined by my sexuality. I had built a career as a PR professional and built an agency that did phenomenal work for its clients. Before I knew it, I started receiving notes from clients, employees, prospects applauding my honesty. I not only overcame this struggle, I accepted it head on.

Any other takeaways for our readers?

Nardone: We’re seeing a lot of talk across the industry about decreasing PR or marketing spend as a cost-cutting measure during COVID-19, and it’s a topic I feel passionate about addressing. Just like back in the 2009 recession, an economic downturn is the time to increase your brand equity and squeeze the most impact out of your marketing dollars, not to cut them. So, my message to readers would be to rethink your approach if this department is where you’re looking to save, because it might cost you more in the long run.

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